Archive for the 'Music' Category

Shostakovich, at the end

September 17, 2014

Over the past few months I’ve been enjoying a big listening project — no, not that one. I’ve been listening to all of Shostakovich’s symphonies and string quartets, in chronological order. There are 15 of each, and they are both generally considered to be major contributions to their respective traditions. Certainly they are full of tremendously good music. I am more fond of the string quartets than of the symphonies, and this listening project hasn’t changed that, but I have gained a new appreciation for some of his symphonies, especially Nos. 7 and 14. I continue to hold Nos. 4, 5, and 10 in high regard.

The last piece in the survey is his devastating String Quartet No.15, written in 1974 while Shostakovich was in failing health and faltering spirits. I consider it to be one of the great masterpieces of the 20th century, and among the greatest string quartets ever written. Here is the Emerson String Quartet playing the final movement. Farewell, dear Shostakovich! Requiescat in pace.

Singing like a Byrd

September 13, 2014

One of my favourite choirs, Stile Antico, has a new recording out this week, and the news sent me scrounging for some concert footage. I found this clip of them singing William Byrd’s Ave verum corpus, recorded last year at Wigmore Hall. This piece is one of the “greatest hits” of the period; certainly it is one that I love. The sound here is tremendously good, and the singing is so precise that one can hear all four parts clearly. Follow along with the score?

Mechanical bliss

September 1, 2014

My pop music odyssey recently reached the mid-1970s and I have been listening to an assortment of things by Van Morrison; today I’d like to share a curiosity.

According to his official discography, Van Morrison recorded nothing between 1974’s Veedon Fleece and 1977’s A Period of Transition, but actually there was another record in there which, owing to contractual problems, was never released. It’s unofficial title is Mechanical Bliss. Some of the songs recorded for that album eventually made it onto Van Morrison’s back-catalogue showcase The Philosopher’s Stone in 1991, but one of the songs that didn’t make the cut was “Mechanical Bliss” itself. I’d never heard it until just these past few weeks.

It’s an interesting song that I’ve been having a lot of fun with. I’m convinced it is a parody of the Beatles in their late period, and a pretty good one too. I’ve never heard anything like this from Van Morrison before. Have a listen:

As I say, it’s a curiosity, but undoubtedly very curious indeed.

“Of all the noises known to man…”

August 22, 2014

My series of posts on “Great moments in opera” consistently garners widespread indifference. But I can’t resist drawing attention to an interesting article by Roger Scruton on the operatic art. I wouldn’t go so far as to agree with his claim that opera is “the supreme art form” and that “the inner life is essentially operatic”, but there is nonetheless much of interest in what he writes. Scruton is himself an opera composer, and he has good insight into the allure of opera:

Opera is a crown to be won, a sign that the composer has finally stuck his head above the clouds on Mount Olympus. Beethoven wrote his single opera twice, and parts of it more than twice, in the determination to reach the summit where Handel and Mozart stood in triumph. Schubert tried and failed, again and again. Mendelssohn and Brahms shied away, but Schumann laboured for eight years over Genoveva, his only opera, in which the strain of writing is clearly audible. Janáček achieved his first real success, after several attempts, at the age of 50, with Jenůfa. Chausson put his entire life into his one opera, Le roi Arthus, as did George Enescu into his laboured retelling of the Oedipus story. Debussy spent ten years over Pelléas et Mélisande, and Stravinsky’s one full-length opera, The Rake’s Progress, was accomplished only by means of a complete change of style, from neo-classical Stravinsky to inverted comma “Mozart”.

Those examples testify to the determination with which composers have approached the operatic task. Their work might gain only a few performances, before disappearing into the void like Genoveva and Le roi Arthus, like Enescu’s Oedipe, Busoni’s Doktor Faust and Pfitzner’s Palestrina — distinguished operas that are now all but forgotten. Not deterred by those corpses by the wayside, however, composers continue to tackle the lower slopes of Mount Olympus, knowing that, even if they reach the first plateau, holding a completed score in their hands, they may not get to the next one, with a live performance. And beyond that goal lies the distant summit of the operatic art, where stands the handful of composers with works in the permanent repertoire.

He also makes some probing remarks about the recent practice, all too common, of saturing opera stage productions in violence, sex, and a general ugliness (which Heather Mac Donald has also written about):

Sacred things are especially intolerable to those who no longer believe in them. An urge to desecrate is the inevitable successor to a lost habit of reverence. Hence Siegfried is dressed in schoolboy uniform, Mélisande is lying on a hospital bed in sheltered accommodation, Rusalka is taking a bath in a whorehouse, and — well you know how it goes. The best one can hope for in the state-subsidised opera houses of today is that the singers will all be dressed in Nazi uniform, but otherwise allowed to get on with the plot.

It’s a good article. Read the whole thing.

Goldberg Variations: Aria

July 28, 2014

Bach died on this day in 1750. Here is Daniel Barenboim playing the Aria from the Goldberg Variations. A few years ago, when we had an old piano in the house, I spent a good deal of time trying to learn to play the opening bars of this piece. I never did get very far.

Great moments in opera: Der Rosenkavalier

July 16, 2014

Richard Strauss made an operatic name for himself with the dark and exotic dramas of Elektra and Salome, with their bloodthirsty heroines and tumultuous scores, so it was, perhaps, a surprise when his next project proved to be a genteel drawing-room opera with music based throughout on the Viennese waltz. Der Rosenkavalier (The Cavalier of the Rose) was a hit nonetheless, and has remained popular in opera houses in the intervening century.

There are four principal roles.  The Marschellin, an older woman, is carrying on an illicit affair with a young man, Octavian; meanwhile, a philandering older man, Baron Ochs, seeks the hand of a young woman, Sophie, in marriage. Over the course of the opera Octavian and Sophie fall in love, and their marriage is contrived with the help of the Marschellin and at the expense of the Baron.

That’s it, in a nutshell, but Strauss and his long-time librettist, Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, have made more of it than a brief plot sketch would suggest. Consider, for instance, the long monologue which the Marschellin sings at the end of Act I; in it, she reflects on growing old, the inevitable passage of time, and mortality. It’s a melancholy monologue, but Strauss has infused it with a delicate, beguiling beauty that resonates graciously in the ear. Here is Kiri Te Kanawa singing it, with English subtitles:

We can hear the same music sung by the wonderful soprano Elizabeth Schwarzkopf here, albeit without English subtitles. Live footage of Schwarzkopf is rare, so this is a treat. If you don’t know, she was one of the greatest Strauss sopranos of the ‘golden age’ of opera recordings in the 1950s and 1960s.

At the end of Act I, immediately prior to the Marschellin’s solitary ruminations we just heard, Baron Ochs had deputized the young Octavian to take a rose to the home of Sophie, presenting it to her on the Baron’s behalf. (Octavian is thus the titular ‘cavalier of the rose’.) At the beginning of Act II he arrives at her home, enters, and presents the gift — except that as he does so, he falls in love with Sophie, and she with him. This is a wonderful scene. The two of them sing a sprightly and ravishingly beautiful duet. Here are Anneliese Rothenberger (Sophie) and Sena Jurinac (Octavian); unfortunately I could not find a clip of this scene with English subtitles. You’ll notice that Octavian’s part is sung by a soprano; apparently it doesn’t prevent his being attractive to Sophie.

Strauss saves the best for last, however. As Act III draws to a close, and all of the machinations of the plot are winding down, he gives us two gorgeous ensemble pieces. The first is a trio, Hab’ mir’s gelobt, sung by the Marschellin, Octavian, and Sophie. This is one of the few triple-soprano pieces that I know of; one might have to go back to baroque opera to find another. Here are Anna Tomowa-Sintow (the Marschellin), Janet Perry (Sophie), and Agnes Baltsa (Octavian) in a 1980s-era Salzburg production, with English subtitles:

This is followed by the opera’s final number: a ravishing duet between Octavian and Sophie, which begins at about the 10 minute mark in the clip above, and is unquestionably one of the opera’s high points.

Der Rosenkavalier is over three hours long in performance, and, though the plot is slight, parts of it are truly excellent, as I hope this post has made clear.

Around and about

July 4, 2014

A few things worth noting:

  • Today is the anniversary of the death of William Byrd in 1623. Let’s hear his luminous setting of Ave Verum Corpus, sung here by the Tallis Scholars: 
  • Maclin Horton has some good commentary on the recent Hobby Lobby decision from the US Supreme Court, here and here.
  • North of the border, we’ve had our own, politer brand of cultural politics to contend with. Our Golden Boy decided, out of the blue, to bar pro-life candidates from the Liberal party and to crack the party whip on the backs of those already elected to Parliament. Raymond de Souza’s blunt criticism of those who have buckled under this mistreatment is sobering but very much to the point.
  • Also from Maclin Horton: somebody at Salon woke up and realized that Pope Francis might not be the Great White Hope that some thought he was. Instead, he’s a “sexist, nun-hating, poverty-perpetuating, pedophile-protecting homophobe”. That’s as clueless an assessment as its opposite was, but it is nonetheless oddly refreshing to hear it.
  • Andy Whitman has high praise for Joe Henry’s latest album, Invisible Hour. Maybe this will be the Joe Henry record that finally wins me over? Andy sure makes it sound great. 

Great moments in opera: Tosca

June 22, 2014

Puccini’s Tosca has been an opera-house favourite since its premiere in 1900. Joseph Kerman famously dismissed it as “a shabby little shocker”, not without some reason, for it does have an unusually vicious villain, and the finale does play in a merciless and calculated way on the audience’s heartstrings, but the music is memorable and winsome, and in opera that generally carries the day.

The action of the plot takes place in a specific 24 hour period — 17-18 June 1800 — and the three Acts are set in three famous landmarks in Rome: the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese, and Castel Sant’Angelo. The action opens with a young painter, Cavaradossi, working on a mural in Sant’Andrea della Valle. He is interrupted by a friend, a political prisoner just escaped from prison. He offers him food, clothing, and a refuge on his estate. His lover, Tosca, then makes her entrance. Soon enough the fates of all three will be entangled. At this point, however, we are simply treated to a lovely duet (Non la sospiri, la nostra casetta?) (Do you not long for our little cottage?) between Cavaradossi and Tosca:

After Tosca’s departure, the Chief of Police, Scarpia, enters the church in pursuit of the escaped prisoner. Cavaradossi denies all knowledge, but Scarpia does not believe him; Cavaradossi is arrested.

In the second Act, the evil in Scarpia’s heart becomes fully evident: he brings Tosca in for questioning and vows to torture and kill Cavaradossi unless she will submit to his lecherous advances. She, hearing Cavarodossi’s cries of pain, vacillates as to what she should do in the famous aria Vissi d’arte (I lived for art). This is one of the best-known soprano arias in all of opera, and with good reason.

Much to my joy, we can listen to Maria Callas sing this aria! I haven’t featured Maria Callas much in these “Great moments in opera” posts because I generally prefer to embed live action, staged, and subtitled clips, and there is precious little live action footage of Callas. This clip of Vissi d’arte, however, meets all of my criteria. I am especially pleased about this because the role of Tosca is indelibly associated with Callas: her 1953 recording (opposite Giuseppe di Stefano and under the baton of Victor de Sabata) is widely considered to be the greatest recording of Tosca. Indeed, in a discussion of the greatest opera recordings ever made, it would have to be (andhasbeen) part of the discussion.

Anyway, here she is singing Vissi d’arte, in a 1958 recording. (The clip is unfortunately not embeddable.)

The outcome of Tosca’s prayerful deliberation is a cunning scheme: she consents to submit to Scarpia’s desires on condition that he afterwards grant Cavaradossi and her safe passage out of Rome. He agrees, but stipulates that Cavaradossi must first go before the firing squad, as planned. He tells Tosca that he will have the soldiers fire blanks — never intending, of course, to honour the promise. He writes and signs her letter of safe passage. Then, as he approaches her, she draws his knife from his belt and stabs him. When he collapses on the floor, she grabs the passport and runs.

As the third Act opens, Cavaradossi is awaiting execution. In the quiet of the early morning, as the last stars he will ever see begin to fade from view, he sings what is one of my favourite arias in the repertoire, E lucevan le stelle. It’s a great example of Puccini’s art: simple in construction, lasting not longer than a typical pop song, but powerfully affecting. It begins with a quiet dialogue between the singer and a clarinet; the singer ruminates on a recitation tone, and the clarinet answers with a plaintive rising and falling phrase. Then, as the aria gathers momentum, the singer adopts the same arcing phrase, to wonderful effect. My favourite moment in the aria comes somewhere near the mid-point: as the singer reaches the top of his arc, Puccini has him drop to pianissimo and add a gorgeous little decoration. In the right hands, this comes through as meltingly gorgeous. Here is Joseph Calleja showing us how it is done:

Tosca tells him of the deal she struck with Scarpia, and of her subsequent murder of him. She instructs Cavaradossi to go bravely before the firing squad, and, when he hears the shots, to feign injury, falling and lying still until the soldiers leave. He, overjoyed, yet eager to flee before Scarpia’s murder is discovered, agrees. But of course the squad does not fire blanks, and though Cavaradossi falls and lies still, he feigns nothing.

These moments, immediately before and after the shooting, are the dramatic high point of the opera, and for many they are powerfully effective, but I have reservations. The dramatic situation is precisely but cruelly calibrated, and to me it feels manipulative. Listen to the music Puccini writes after the shots ring out: the agony is allowed so much time to ripen that I almost feel Puccini is relishing it. Is this just me recoiling from a particularly powerful but painful dramatic success? Maybe so, but I can’t shake the feeling that the scene, which might have been superb, is, in the end, too indulgent of feelings that I’ve no wish to cultivate.

Here is the scene, beginning a minute or so prior to the execution. We’ll watch it through to the end of the opera.

Odyssey notes: The 1960s

June 17, 2014

My pop music odyssey, structured, you may recall, around the discography of Bob Dylan, has been making slow but steady progress over the past few months. It began in 1962 with Dylan’s self-titled debut record, and, as time goes on, is widening to include the discographies of the Beatles, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits, along with a few other things thrown in from time to time.

I recently reached the end of the 1960s, which seems a good time to pause and offer a few thoughts. This leg of the odyssey has included 15 records by Bob Dylan (including a number of live and bootlegged recordings in addition to his studio albums), 12 by the Beatles (leaving only Let It Be, from 1970, still to come in their discography), 3 each by Neil Young and Van Morrison, and 2 by Leonard Cohen.

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Of these, it is of course Bob Dylan who reigns supreme: listening to those records from the middle years of the decade again — from Freewheelin’ in 1963 up through John Wesley Harding in 1967 — it is amazing to consider his achievement. His debut album hardly prepared us for the supple, evocative, and often hilarious songwriting that showed up on Freewheelin’, and he only went from strength to strength. Sometime in 1962 he wrote “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” a song whose ambition outstripped everything else he’d done, but in the years that followed it was outstripped in turn. He seemed to spiral upward, shedding one persona after another, his music changing along with him, as in a whirlwind. It is hard to imagine where he might have gone after Blonde on Blonde had a motorcycle accident not laid him low, out of sight, for an extended period in 1966-7. When he came back, he had jumped tracks again, singing with a simplicity and straightforwardness that was belied by the enigmatic songs he had written. It is a period of artistic creativity that I, at any rate, find endlessly fascinating and absorbing, and it has been a great pleasure to revisit it.

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What can it have been like to hear Astral Weeks for the first time? Van Morrison was not entirely unknown at the time: he had been the frontman for Them, and in the months leading up to Astral Weeks his record company had, without his consent, released a couple of records of solo material. But, even so, listeners could hardly have been ready for the ecstatic flights and spiritual longing of this, his official debut album. It is a kind of miracle, a one-off in a career by no means devoid of admirable achievements. Its whole spirit seems to have descended from on high, an exultation in song burst from the heart of the singer, who was, astoundingly, then just 23 years old. Despite the absence of anything resembling a single, and though it has long lingered in the shadow of the more accessible (and justly beloved) Moondance, there are few pieces of popular art that affect me more deeply and delight me more thoroughly than it does. Give me Astral Weeks, a steady rain, and the open road, and I’ll be the happiest man on earth.

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A few years ago, on a bit of a whim, I sat down and listened to the first four or five albums by Pink Floyd; Pink Floyd was a famous band whose work I did not know well, and I thought it would be instructive. I was surprised — flabbergasted, really — to find those albums almost unlistenable: the dull sonic experiments, the aimless meandering, the pretentious tedium…

Well, I had a similar sort of experience — though admittedly to a lesser degree — with Neil Young’s self-titled debut record. Though I am an admirer of Neil Young, this was an album that I had never heard, and it turns out I wasn’t missing much. My purpose right now is not to critique it, but simply to ask: how did a lacklustre record like that lead to anything else? How did it become a stepping stone to a great career, rather than a torpedo to it? What did people hear in it that they liked? Maybe I’m just spoiled by knowing the Young of the 1970s before knowing the Young of the 1960s.

Now that I think of it, I suppose much the same line of comment could be applied to Dylan’s debut record too. It barely hinted at what was to come, and that only in retrospect.

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This leg of my journey may well eventually prove to have been the most rewarding. In Rolling Stone’s list of the “Top 500 albums,” for instance, fully seven of the Top 10 are from the 1960s (and, of those, six have been part of my odyssey). Perhaps it’s all downhill from here. But I hope not.

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Meantime, here is a list of my ten favourite odyssey-albums from the 1960s, more or less in descending order:

Van Morrison — Astral Weeks (1968)
Bob Dylan — Blonde on Blonde (1966)
Bob Dylan — Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
Bob Dylan — Freewheelin’ (1963)
Bob Dylan — Live 1964 (1964)
Bob Dylan — John Wesley Harding (1967)
Beatles — Abbey Road (1969)
Bob Dylan — Another Side (1964)
Leonard Cohen — Songs (1967)
Beatles — Help! (1965)

Making a list of favourite odyssey-songs from the same period seems slightly pointless: it more or less amounts to making a list of favourite Dylan songs. But why not? It’s a cruel exercise, there being so many fine candidates, but I’ll give it a shot.

“Desolation Row” (Highway 61 Revisited)
“To Ramona” (Another Side)
“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (Bringing It All Back Home)
“Visions of Johanna” (Blonde on Blonde)
“All Along the Watchtower” (John Wesley Harding)
“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” (Freewheelin’)
“I Want You” (Blonde on Blonde)
“One Too Many Mornings” (The Times They Are A-Changin’)
“Love Minus Zero / No Limit” (Bringing It All Back Home)
“Suzanne” — Leonard Cohen

Looking at that list, I realize it probably doesn’t overlap much with a standard list of Dylan’s “best songs”: no “Blowin’ in the Wind”, no “Like a Rolling Stone”, no “Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”. But there are not meant to be his best songs, by some indeterminate measure, but only my favourite songs, tried and true over many years of listening. And look! one non-Dylan song snuck onto the list in spite of all.

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And now, turning to face forward, and putting on my bell-bottoms, I see in the distance Dylan painting a Self-Portrait, Neil Young reaping a Harvest, Van Morrison breakfasting on Tupelo Honey, Leonard Cohen donning New Skin for an Old Ceremony, and Tom Waits, who until now has been warming up his crooning voice in the wings, I see serenading Nighthawks at the Diner. It’s the 1970s, and I’m cautious but resolute.

Chesterton to music

June 2, 2014

From time to time I have thought to compile a catalogue of musical settings of Chesterton’s poetry. He wrote scads of poetry — now three fat volumes in the Collected Works — and though most of it is of middling quality, there are some gems within. A number of composers have taken up the challenge.

Here is a list of settings, incomplete but still valuable. From it we learn that composer John Gardner has made an extensive setting, for baritone, chorus, and orchestra, of The Ballad of the White Horse, Chesterton’s most ambitious poem; I should dearly love to hear it, but there seem to be no recordings available. Ralph Vaughan Williams paired the poem “O God of Earth and Altar” with the hymn tune KING’S LYNN in the 1906 edition of The English Hymnal [hear it]. The most frequently set among his poems appear to be “The Donkey”, “Wine and Water”, and “The Christ-Child lay on Mary’s lap”.

This last is the poem that has attracted the most eminent composers. It has been set by, among others, Judith Bingham, Will Todd, Gabriel Jackson, and Kenneth Leighton, all of whom, while not exactly household names, are well-known to choral music enthusiasts.

A couple of these settings are available on YouTube; I’ll close this post by linking to them.

Here is Will Todd’s setting of “The Christ-Child”:

And here is Gabriel Jackson’s setting of the same text:

Merry Christmas?

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